Help Me Solve a Musical Theater/Simpsons Mystery


Today, I’m going to ask you to help me solve a mystery. But first, I’m going to ask you to help me win a contest. As part of my actual job (Now I Know is officially a hobby!), my team put together a great campaign to encourage people to get their Covid-19 vaccinations. The campaign, featuring Bugs Bunny, Wonder Woman, Cookie Monster, and a bunch of others, is up for a trio of Shorty Awards — and fans get to vote for that! So if you could, please click here and vote! (You’ll probably need to register with their website first.)

Thanks! Now, onto the main ask. It’s weird.

My local high school is putting on a performance of Pippin this weekend, and because my son is on the crew, I was able to see a “parent preview” on Tuesday night. (In case he reads this, it was really good, even though it was a dress rehearsal.) I had never seen Pippin before and had no idea what it was about. 

The show’s opening number is a song titled “Magic To Do” — and I immediately recognized it. Not only that, but I knew some of the lyrics and composition quite well. But only some of them. If you’re familiar with the song, I knew the opening “join us” lines and I knew the “we’ve got magic to do, just for you; we’ve got miracle plays to play” and how to sing them. This was the only part of the show that was even remotely familiar to me.

Being the insatiably curious person I am, I decided to figure out why I knew parts of the song. I failed, and I want your help to piece together this mystery.

Here’s what I tried because I think it will help.

I started by looking the show up on Wikipedia. The encyclopedia informed me that the lead role in Pippin (which, I didn’t realize, isn’t the role of Pippin) was originally played by Ben Vereen — and somehow, I already knew that. (Specifically, I thought “yeah, the Zoobilee Zoo guy,” a reference to a kids TV show that debuted in 1986.) In my mind’s eye, I could see Ben Vereen singing “Magic To Do,” or, at least, the parts of “Magic To Do” that were familiar to me.

So I searched YouTube for performances of the song… and again, came up empty. I found this performance from the 2013 Tony Awards (likely to promote a Pippin revival that hit Broadway that year) or from this video from, well, I don’t know what. The first one doesn’t star Ben Vereen and, as you’ll see in a moment, doesn’t line up with other parts of my memory timeline. The second one was entirely unfamiliar to me, and that makes sense because it was probably recorded contemporaneously with the Broadway show, which, again, I have never seen. 

I went to Twitter to ask for help and someone suggested that maybe I saw an ad for the Broadway show, but that seems unlikely; Pippen debuted in 1972 and had left Broadway before I was born. Even the touring performances only existed while I was still in diapers (or thereabouts), so again, it’s unlikely that my memory has anything to do with the actual show itself.  A vaguely remember it being from an advertisement from a CD compilation of show tunes, which actually makes a lot of sense — you could imagine the ad opening with “join us!” and then sharing some other songs, and ultimately including “we’ve got magic to do, just for you,” and therefore, I’d not be exposed to any other part of the song. But that vague memory might be a false one. I have no idea.

That’s not much to go on, I know. But there’s another clue. Maybe.

In 2002, the Simpsons, instead of sharing a new story, spent an episode on a clip show. The episode closes with a song loosely parodying Billy Joe’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” — you can watch it here. I watched it yesterday for the first time in years. The song ends with the line “sorry for the clip show! Have no fears, we’ve got stories for years.” If you listen to it, it has absolutely nothing to do with Pippin. Nothing. But — and this is the weird part — that’s now how I remembered it at all. My very clear memory of the Simpsons song has it ending with “we’ve got stories for years, have no fears” to the tune of “we’ve got magic to do, just for you.” Somehow, my brain incorrectly associated a Simpsons song with a song from a Broadway show that I had never seen.

So, to recap:

  • Before Tuesday, I had never seen Pippin.
  • But apparently, I know parts of a song from Pippin (titled “Magic To Do”), and I know it so well that I was able to craft a false memory of a parody of the song in an episode of the Simpsons.
  • Pippin wasn’t regularly performed in the United States from 1977 until about 2013, so there’s little reason to think I did see Pippin and just forgot. It’s also unlikely that I repeatedly saw an ad for Pippin and simply don’t remember.
  • I associate Ben Vereen, who had the lead role in the Broadway version of Pippin, with a children’s TV show from 1986.
  • I also associate Pippin with an episode of the Simpsons that debuted in 2002.

Taking that all together, most likely, I was exposed to “Magic To Do” sometime between 1986 and 2002, although honestly, who knows.

Help me figure it out? Just hit reply to email me any leads. If I get anything interesting back, I’ll share it here in a week or two. Thanks!

The Now I Know Week in Review

Monday: Behold the Power of Cheese: Dairy products as a source of electricty. 

Tuesday: The Bad Reason It’s Not Treason: A story of slavery. 

Wednesday: The Crappiest Way to Scare People?: I’m still laughing at this.

Thursday: World War II’s Pre-Email E-Mail: I thought this was only used in Europe; a few readers told me nope, it was used in other theaters of war as well.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend.

1) “I have one of the most advanced prosthetic arms in the world — and I hate it” (Input Magazine, March 2021, 11 minutes). On the downsides of being a cyborg, to paraphrase the author. Here’s a (long) pull quote:

When my new, 21st-century arm arrived, I hosted an “arm party,” an absurdist celebration of the new device as well as a farewell for a pile of old, passive arms with broken silicone fingers held on with Band-Aids. We had cocktails with arm puns: Armageddon, Pink Armadillo. And we played prosthetic arm Twister during which you could use any of the old prosthetic arms in the pile to help you reach. We got high and set up a makeshift photo booth with a bedsheet so everyone could take surreal pictures with way too many arms.
It was the first time in my life my arms were fun and the basis for shared hilarity, not just me being weird. At the end of the night, the Bebionic — with me attached — cut the celebratory chocolate cake.

And that was one of the last times I ever used it.

Maybe it was because it felt heavy as hell. It was only three pounds or so, but three pounds feels like a ton to a limb that typically carries no weight, and the heft of the prosthetic hand pulled hard on the socket and made me sweat. In order to open and close, myoelectric hands require that you flex your muscles where sensors inside of the socket can detect your movement. There are typically only two “contact site” sensors inside the socket — this is called a “dual-site” system — so you need to cycle through a series of grip patterns by flexing twice in quick succession inside of the socket to get to the one you want.

The “power grip” (a fist) is cool, but, oh my God, trying to cycle through all the modes to find it is infuriating. (Did I mention that you cannot reprogram the hand to include more grip patterns without an appointment with your prosthetist?) In fact, everything about the Bebionic was exhausting. I’ve used it on and off on special days, but most often as a party trick: Wanna see me crush a can?

2) “Jobfished: the con that tricked dozens into working for a fake design agency” (BBC, 15 minutes, February 2022). If you’re reading this in hopes of figuring out why someone would create a fake company and hire people to work there, you’re going to be disappointed; the story doesn’t answer that beyond a theory or two at the end. But the rest of the story is a jaw-dropper.

3) “Deep Space Nine Innings: A Star Trek Spinoff’s Unlikely Baseball Obsession” (Deadspin, 10 minutes, March 2018). It’s a story about baseball. It’s a story about Star Trek. I am the target audience for this; you probably aren’t, but maybe you should be.(For those DS9 fans out there, the link in the article to “insane moral compromises” is broken; it went to a video of the episode titled “In the Pale Moonlight.” But if you’re a big DS9 fan, you probably could have guessed that already.)

And a bonus: “My Cousin Vinny: An Oral History” (Rolling Stone, March 2022, 34 minutes). It’s behind a paywall so I didn’t want to share it as one of the regular three articles today.

Have a great weekend! (Baseball is back, so I will!)